John Hennessy, the chair of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., was recently asked whether Google providing a search engine in China that censored results would provide a net benefit for Chinese users. “I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s — I think it’s a legitimate question,” he responded. “Anybody who does business in China compromises some of their core values. Every single company, because the laws in China are quite a bit different than they are in our own country.”
Hennessy’s remarks were in relation to Project Dragonfly, a once-secret project within Google to build a version of its search engine that meets the demands of the ruling Chinese Communist Party — namely, that Google proactively censor “sensitive” speech and comply with China’s data provenance and surveillance laws.
I worked as a research scientist at Google when Dragonfly was revealed — including to most Google employees — and resigned in protest after a month of internally fighting for clarification.
I worked as a research scientist at Google when Dragonfly was revealed — including to most Google employees — and resigned in protest after a month of internally fighting for clarification. That’s part of why I object to this constant drift of conversations about Dragonfly from concrete, indefensible details toward the vague language of difficult compromise.
When news of Dragonfly first broke on August 1, a Google staff member who had secretly worked on Dragonfly took to the company-only Google Plus forum. The language was clear: “In my opinion it is just as bad as the leak mentions,” the staffer wrote, adding that they had asked to be removed from the project and another employee had left the company over their discomfort. At this point, my internal alarms went off, and I started pointedly asking my team and management if there was any official company response.
While employees were waiting for an official response at the next company-wide meeting, we were also sharing links to details about the project that we found through directly scouring Google’s source code, which is mostly available to all engineers. Even though much of Dragonfly had been kept from prying eyes, or “siloed,” the pieces that slipped through were disturbing. One of the Google-constructed blacklists for search terms contained numerous phrases, including “human rights” and “Nobel prize.” Code had been written to show only Chinese air quality data from an unnamed source in Beijing. And Dragonfly linked searches to the users’ phone numbers.
Due to having recently moved to Toronto to support my wife’s career, I was working remotely and was disconnected from any internal organizing efforts against Dragonfly. So when the company-wide meeting came and went without any substantive response to hundreds of impassioned appeals from employees, I exercised the strongest speech available to me and submitted my two-weeks notice to my manager — and the rest of the company — in the form of a six-page document listing my objections to the project.
My final two weeks at Google were spent balancing between handing off my projects to other engineers and meeting with increasingly senior management about my letter; my penultimate evening was spent in a disappointing direct meeting with Jeff Dean, the head of artificial intelligence research and my interface to Google’s CEO. Dean argued that only a small number of queries would be censored and that China’s surveillance is analogous to the U.S.’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, secret warrants purportedly issued for the purpose of rooting out foreign spies. The next day, I worked late to finish my last project handoff and anticlimactically turned in my company badge and laptop to an empty office.
Ironically, I had no intention of speaking with the press until I later read an interview Hennessy had done as part of a promotion for his recent book, “Leading Matters.” When asked about Google re-entering the Chinese market, he dismissively said, “There’s a shifting set of grounds of how you think about that problem, and how you think about the issue of censorship. The truth is, there are forms of censorship virtually everywhere around the world.”
Soon after, I went public with my resignation, and after a few more weeks of silence from Google, I detailed my objections in a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee ahead of a privacy hearing attended by Google Chief Privacy Officer Keith Enright. During the hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, repeatedly pushed for answers on Dragonfly, but Enright pleaded ignorance, saying he was “not clear on the contours of what is in scope or out of scope for that project.” When asked whether China censors what its citizens can see, he dodged: “As the privacy representative of Google, I’m not sure that I have an informed opinion on that question.”
Google’s response was evasive enough that in the weeks after the hearing, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech in which he demanded an end to Dragonfly. “Google should immediately end development of the ‘Dragonfly’ app that will strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers,” Pence said.
Yet, a little more than a week later, Google CEO Sundar Pichai attempted to invoke an engineering defense by arguing that Google would not need to censor “well over 99 percent” of queries. Such a framing is perhaps the most extreme example of a broad pattern of redirecting conversations away from their concrete governmental concessions — which, again, literally involved blacklisting the phrase “human rights,” risking health by censoring air quality data, and allowing for easy surveillance by tying queries to phone numbers. Human rights and basic political speech are not an ignorable edge case.
It’s important to remember that Google’s 2010 withdrawal of its censored Chinese search engine was provoked by Beijing hacking the inner sanctum of Google’s software — their source code repository — to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents. Despite the obvious connection, Google’s leadership has entirely avoided clarifying Dragonfly’s surveillance concessions or addressing one of the main demands in a letter from a coalition of 14 human rights organizations. The letter implored google to “[d]isclose its position on censorship in China and what steps, if any, Google is taking to safeguard against human rights violations linked to Project Dragonfly and its other Chinese mobile app offerings.”
I, for my part, would ask that Sundar Pichai honestly engage on what the chair of Google’s parent company has agreed is a compromise of some of Google’s “core values.” Google’s AI principles have committed the company to not “design or deploy … technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of … human rights.”
Human rights organizations around the world, as well as Google’s own employees, have cried out. Google owes them all forthright answers.